It’s not easy being the president of such a venerated company as Patek Philippe, although one could say that Thierry Stern had been training his whole life for this role; one could even say he was born for it. He is a part of the family after all, and growing up in what must be the most revered of watchmaking institutions, it was almost impossible not to be impassioned by the craft. Our friends at WOW bring us this interview and story, as published in Singapore.
Upon completing his studies at the École de Commerce in Geneva, and then an accelerated program at the Watchmaking School of Geneva, Stern found himself at a fork in the road. He had to choose between pursuing further education and going straight into the business. Knowing full well that sitting in a classroom or an office all day is not his idea of work, with the blessing of his father, Stern made a beeline for the workforce.
He started out as an administrative employee with Patek Philippe and was dispatched to Germany where he spent two years working very closely with two large Patek Philippe retailers. This was when he picked up all the tricks of the retail trade and learned how to sell. After Germany, he flew across the Atlantic Ocean to the U.S. to work at one of the largest Patek Philippe subsidiaries, the Henri Stern Watch Agency in New York, where he was trained in sales, inventory management for bracelets and components, after-sales service, and business relations.
Next, Stern went into production by joining Ateliers Réunis SA, the company that made bracelets and cases for Patek Philippe, working alongside great watchmaking artisans and craftsmen. In 1997, he went back to the commercial side and took on the role of marketing manager for Patek Philippe in the Benelux region. Finally, he returned to the company headquarters in Geneva. From 1998 to 2003, he was responsible for product development and creation. Thereafter, he was ready to lead Patek Philippe alongside his father, until 2009 when the torch was officially passed to him.
It’s been six years since Thierry Stern ascended to the role of brand president of Patek Philippe. He took over the reins from his father, Philippe Stern, who is today the company’s honorary president. The older Stern had, in turn, succeeded his own father, Henri Stern, in 1993. Indeed, over the 83 years that the Stern family owned Patek Philippe, the company had always been passed down from father to son. Stern’s management style is thus not one that can be learned from books. It is only inherited from his predecessors and absorbed through sheer passion and intuition. Like this, Patek Philippe continues to be the strong, family-owned traditional watchmaker for generations.
The two faces of Grandmaster Chime Ref. 5175 (above and below)
Congratulations on the 175th anniversary of Patek Philippe as well as the beautiful collection that resulted from this commemoration. Can you share with us your thoughts on this major milestone?
On the one hand, it is a relief because after seven years of hard work, we finally could present the collection. It was a long process and when you work this long, you’ll be happy to present the results. Yet, at the same time, you’re a little sad. Something like this is unique and I would like to see it hopefully three times in my life. I witnessed the 150th anniversary, now I’m part of the 175th anniversary, and I hope I will be here for the 200th because that would definitely be my anniversary. To me, the 175th is the anniversary of my father because he’s the one who really led the company at the time.
Tell us more about process that led to the collection.
First, it’s never easy to work on something you have to wait seven years to present. You have to know the market very well. Our main objective was to think about what was really missing in the collection. I wasn’t simply going to break records in terms of number of complications. That’s something we already did with the Star Calibre, Calibre 89. So I spoke to my father. I asked him, “Do you think we should do something even more complicated or something different?” Without hesitation, he said we should do something different. He also said it should be done in a wristwatch this time. After analysing the collection and listening to the clients, we arrived at the concept of Grandmaster Chime.
How did you go about creating this watch?
This was a very complicated movement to realise. For us, we took on the challenge and I think it was quite fun because the first thing you have to establish is what you are willing and able to add to it. Of course we added complications, but we also wanted something new because when you do something like this, it’s important to show that while we are able to fabricate something complicated, we can also be creative. I think it’s very important for a brand to have ideas and not just redo things already existing in the time of pocket watches.
Front and back views of Calibre GS AL 36-750 QIS FUS IRM, the movement behind Ref. 5175
Did you meet any challenges along the way?
It was interesting because from the beginning we have been developing this watch with a single dial. About a year into the R&D, my father showed me a pocket watch perpetual calendar he had acquired for the museum. It was a very beautiful watch, very sober, very clean. And then he said the words, “By the way, I would like to add a perpetual calendar into the anniversary watch because it’s a beautiful complication.” (Laughs) I was stunned for a moment and of course I told him that it would change the whole project! He simply said, “Well, figure it out.” (Laughs)
How did you overcome this unique challenge?
To include a perpetual calendar, we cannot have a simple dial. That’s how we came upon the idea of a double-face watch. The only other way is to realise two watches, which was out of the question. I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of working on a double-face watch because the difficulty is to make it simple for the client. You see, as a watchmaker you’re willing to do very complicated things, but you need to think for the person who’s wearing it. We looked two years for a good solution to manipulate the case and eventually found a way for the watch to be manipulated easily by taking the two lugs, bending them a little, and flipping it over with one finger. We patented it as soon as we were sure it works and I’m certain we will reuse it in the future.
What else stands out to you about this product?
I had also chosen to show the skill of Patek in terms of engraving. I think it’s a nice idea in terms of design. We can like it or not, people have a choice. Some customers told me it’s a nice piece, but they don’t like the engraving. Others say they love it. Well, it’s an anniversary piece. That’s why it has to be decorated like this. I chose a specific engraver to do the job. He is the one guy working on all seven pieces because this would also ensure consistency. I would rather have consistency and wait a little longer than be inconsistent just to have the products faster. Maybe people won’t notice it but for me, it’s important. That’s why we are a little bit late on the delivery. Of course, the engraver cannot be rushed, but I hope everything will be complete by the end of this year.
Close-up of Ref. 5175
Overall, how satisfied are you with this watch?
The only regret I have is not being able to have an enamel dial. This was not possible because all the dials you see are functional, so below the dial, there are a lot of technical elements. The dial needs to be thinner than normal so there’s no way we can decorate it with enamel because once you put it in the oven, it is going to move. We cannot have that. But it doesn’t matter. I still think the dial is very nice, and well, there are two of them.
Apart from commemorating the 175th anniversary of Patek Philippe, what was the philosophy going into the Grandmaster Chime?
My idea was to add new things. I think it’s important to have our DNA into it. That DNA can be in terms of design or movement techniques. We ended up with the alarm function that doesn’t just ring generically, but chimes the hours. This is quite easy to explain, but very hard to realise because you need to add a lot of different components. Second, something totally new is the date on demand. That’s also really nice because like a minute repeater, it chimes the date. It’s totally new, and a very nice idea to have. It was funny because at some point, I had to consciously stop talking about ideas because otherwise, we would never stop adding new functions.
Twenty complications and 1,366 components sounds like a whole lot.
I think the result is quite impressive because I’m always amazed to see all those parts work together. This is so difficult to do, but when you have the technology and experience, and the right people, everything is possible. You have to believe in what you’re doing. You have to follow a line. And I think that’s really what makes Patek Philippe strong. We have a very clean and clear strategy. We know what we are willing to do, so it was easy for me in one sense. To me, the most impressive thing is not only the technology we’ve been using, but also the fact that we are using both vintage and high-tech machines. If you’re only using vintage technology, I don’t think you can really evolve, and you’ll be a bit dusty in the end. If you’re only using new technology, then you’ll make iWatches, which are interesting, but not something that can stay, not mechanical. This mix is something that always attracts me. It’s the same for my father and his before him. We always add both tradition and technology.
World Time Ref. 5131 with enamel dial
Ref. 5275P-001 with chiming jump hour
But where do you draw the line?
I think that’s difficult to say. It’s part of the education that I had growing up in this family. I know there’s a line I cannot cross. Where? I cannot say because there is no book. It’s all by instinct.
What was the most surprising thing about the entire process, across all seven years, of producing the Grandmaster Chime?
At the beginning of the project, there were maybe 200 people knowing about it. Every year, you could add another 100. At the end, there were 1,000 people involved, but the amazing thing was that nobody spoke about it to anyone outside of the project. People have tried to search the Internet for what we were doing for the 175th anniversary, but there was nothing at all. This was, for me, the most fantastic part. When you’re able to do this, especially these days with the Internet when nothing is secret, you know you have a good company and the people trust you. I’m still amazed by it today. I didn’t make anyone sign non-disclosure contracts, but everybody knew. Even today we talk about this. It was the best part of the project. An amazing effort. Our people believed in it and are willing to keep the surprise for the customers.
If confidentiality was not an issue, what were your main concerns about the collection’s launch?
It was a tough period for me because I had to work on three collections simultaneously. There was the 2014 collection, the anniversary collection, and I had to prepare for 2015. Since the beginning, I knew I would have to be very strong also in 2015, because everybody would be thinking that Patek Philippe did a great job for the anniversary collection, so the following year, we would be tired and present nothing new at BaselWorld.
Do you think the Calatrava Pilot Travel Time achieved that for you?
To be frank, this was a watch I did on the corner of the table, so to speak, when I had a little bit of time. I had some spare time, so I did it. (Laughs)
Pilot Travel Time Ref. 5524
So which novelty this year was the main highlight for you?
For me, it is the Ref. 5370. I was really surprised that people talked so much about the pilot’s watch. It was a product that we did because it was fun and a pilot’s watch is cool. I’m amazed. It’s crazy. Of course, people either like it or they do not. That’s why it’s fun with this watch. You see, it’s always important to surprise people. I can totally understand that some people don’t like it, but it was the same with the Aquanaut at the time, the same with the Nautilus, which was during my dad’s time. I think it’s our duty to surprise and do something new. I was also amazed when some people said that the pilot’s watch is not Patek Philipe. But how can they say that when I had created it? And I’m pretty sure I’m inside the DNA of Patek Philippe.
But you must agree that it is not exactly a Calatrava in the purest sense of the collection?
We put it in the Calatrava because I didn’t see anything bad in doing so. There really wasn’t any complicated strategy behind it. I didn’t want to launch a pilot’s watch line because it’s not a field I should go into. This was just one shot, just to show I am able to do something different. Maybe in the future, there will be different models, but even that I’m not so sure of. That’s why I didn’t want to set anything in stone. You know, I often have questions like these about Patek Philippe myself. Sometimes when I look at our archives, I ask, “Why did they choose things like this… or why did they do something like that? What was the logic behind?” My father would look at me and say, “But it’s not about logic.” Think simple, he always says. Don’t complicate things. So that’s how we do it.
Text and interview by Celine Yap